- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2001

Washington Opera Chairman Jim Kimsey sounded much like a sports announcer as he rattled off a list of VIP guests at the opera's season opener Saturday night.Rightly so, since much of the effort getting a successful opera season up and running resembles a sporting game in which one of the goals is attracting loyal and deep-pocketed patrons to meet the ever-mounting costs of an already expensive art form.
For "Tales of Hoffman," a new co-production with St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater and the Los Angeles Opera, the local company had the backing of New York-based philanthropist Alberto Vilar who was present along with Kirov Opera Artistic Director Valery Gergiev to see the work directed by Marta Domingo, wife of Placido Domingo, artistic director of both the Washington and Los Angeles companies.
Mr. Vilar also underwrote the opening night gala dinner that followed the show in Kennedy Center's Opera House.
"Has this been a great night or what?" Mr. Kimsey exulted to patrons and fans who paid a minimum $1,000 a head on top of their $600 orchestra seats a figure that not even the National Football League, and Redskins owner Dan Snyder in particular, has reached to date. But such is the price of glamour in the opera world these days, especially in the major leagues to which the Washington company aspires.
"We're trying to make it like the opening night at the Met," said longtime supporter Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt, who said the event was expected to raise $800,000.
The lineup of guests was as glittering as it gets at Washington social functions without the president or celebrity imports from Hollywood.
"When we have a cultural event like this in what is the capital of the world, you know we really deserve to be called the capital of the world," Mr. Kimsey gloated, saying his job was to "tell you all the illustrious people in the room." He began the list with "Her Majesty Queen Noor" of Jordan, who was in town visiting her father, then went on to name Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, Ted Stevens and Patrick Leahy, and nine ambassadors.
Plus, of course, "Placido Domingo: our star, our presence, our soul. Without him none of this would be possible."
Kudos and kisses all around, but the plaudits didn't stop there. Mr. Vilar, touted by Mr. Kimsey as "accelerator for the renaissance of this great city," stepped up to the podium in the center's rose-filled South Gallery, to tell grateful dinner patrons that "as someone who sees over 100 operas in a year, this is as good as it gets."
The event was marked, too, by a medal-award ceremony when French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang honored Mrs. Domingo with the insignia of commander of the Order of French Arts and Letters, which he called "one of the major orders of the French Republic." (Mr. Domingo has a higher ranking, having been named in the past a commander of the Legion d'Honneur.)
Mr. Bujon de l'Estang praised Mrs. Domingo's direction of the production with music by Jacques Offenbach, one of his country's most famous 19th-century music legends. Earlier in the evening, however, the ambassador was less effusive about "Moulin Rouge," the recent MTV-inspired film phantasmagoria loosely based on the composer's cancan music.
"It flopped in Paris," he said with evident satisfaction. "I don't think it even lasted a week."
Mr. Domingo didn't speak until after dessert was served around midnight (which made it an exceptionally late evening for guests who showed up on time for the opera's 6:30 p.m. curtain).
"It's phenomenonal, a miracle," he said, thanking Mr. Vilar and other benefactors for their consistently generous funding of his repertoire, which he promised would always remain "well-balanced."
"People in Europe," he added, "don't understand how it happens" because of the opera world's longtime dependence on government support.
As for wife Marta's role in his company: "If I cast somebody in my own family, they have to be good."
No expense was spared on scenery, costumes and imported vocal talent for the lavish production, which thrilled opera lovers for more than 3-1/2 hours. For those grown weary by intermission, there was a full buffet and flowing Dom Perignon at the ready in the Golden Circle Lounge, along with a discreet video monitor providing live coverage of the Williams sisters' U.S. Open tennis match.
The post-performance dinner in the South Gallery was, of course, the place to fashion watch, exchange air kisses and trade news of summer jaunts with friends one hadn't seen since the Opera Ball in June. Glamorously gowned and bejeweled patrons posed for photographers during cocktails, at least until Queen Noor and Mr. Kimsey arrived together and stole the show (both looked rather uncomfortable being captured on film). Mr. Kennedy and his sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, specifically asked not to be photographed, despite being obvious targets next to the queen and Mr. Kimsey at a not-to-be-missed table next to the entrance.
Other guests, especially high-dollar supporters, got by without too much unwanted attention. Betty Casey, Betty Scripps Harvey, Catherine B. Reynolds and Michael Sonnenreich were among "Golden Benefactors" present who have contributed at the $1 million-plus level. Others spotted dining on foie gras and truffles, peach glazed quail and a chocolate gondola with seasonal fruits included Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, Mandell and Mary Ourisman, Mac and Donna McLarty, Sandra Payson, John Irelan, Otto and Jeanie Reusch, Bitsey Folger, John and Toni Gore, John and Joanne Mason, Greg Earls, Jon Ledecky, Huda and Samia Farouki, Wilma Bernstein, Philip and Nina Pillsbury, Ina Ginsburg, Librarian of Congress James Billington and Marjorie Billington, Esther Coopersmith and Aniko Gaal Schott.


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